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The Last Guardian finds beauty in uncertainty

Much of your time with Fumito Ueda’s last game, the sublime Shadow of the Colossus, was spent on horseback searching a desolate land to hunt down mysterious beasts. But unlike in most games to feature equine exploration, your steed wasn't always well-behaved. Agro generally went in the direction you pointed, but often would remind you that he had a mind of his own.

Sixteen years on and after perpetual delays, Ueda’s highly anticipated follow-up The Last Guardian is almost entirely built around that idea. You play a young boy who encounters a massive dog-cat-bird creature called Trico; together you need to use each of your respective strengths to progress through a strange environment. Trico is a mostly willing companion, but like Agro or any other pet needs to be trained, and won’t always behave the way you expect. Solving The Last Guardian’s puzzles is as much about building up a trusting relationship as it is about unlocking the secrets around you.

As much about relationship-building as secret-unlocking

I played through a new 45-minute demo that had been prepared for this week’s Tokyo Game Show; it follows on from the game’s opening moments that my colleague Ross played at E3. The demo sees your character and Trico navigating through a seemingly abandoned building, figuring out how to get outside, and dealing with puzzles atop some precarious wooden structures.

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When the interplay of puzzle-solving and emotional bond comes off, The Last Guardian is exhilarating like nothing else. Trico is an astonishingly realized creature, with subtle animations and sound design helping you figure out what it’s feeling. Sometimes it’s frustrated, sometimes it’s playful, sometimes it’s scared — but it’s with you for the adventure and wants to help you out. This leads to heartstopping moments where you place your life in Trico’s hands and vice versa, as the creature’s idiosyncratic personality makes you never quite sure what’s going to happen.

This feeling of uncertainty is amplified by the puzzle design and control system, both of which are a lot looser than you’d usually find in a game like this. It usually works in The Last Guardian’s favor, but it’s not always for the better. While I was playing a preproduction build, the controls are pretty fundamentally awkward and the camera seems to have as much of an independent streak as Trico; together with some performance issues, the game is often reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus’ worse traits as well as its best.

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And at one point in my demo, even the developers themselves couldn’t work out why Trico wasn’t behaving the way he was supposed to in order to solve a puzzle. The eventual solution was obscure and unconnected to the puzzle itself, which doesn’t quite bode well for the final release — not being able to solve a puzzle when you know what to do suggests that The Last Guardian’s unpredictability may occasionally work against it.

But if the final product manages to keep up the pacing and beauty of what I played, The Last Guardian could well be a worthy successor to Shadow of the Colossus and Ico before it. It looks to have all of those games’ heart and delicate touch, not to mention Ueda’s unmistakable hazy aesthetic — those points alone will be more than enough to make The Last Guardian stand out upon its release this December.